“I have never been able to find in any man’s book or any man’s talk anything … to stand up for a moment against my deep-seated sense of fatality governing this man-inhabited world.” Joseph Conrad, 1922, in correspondence with Bertrand Russell.
A new biography of Joseph Conrad has come out. The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World is written by Maya Jasanoff, an American historian, who has set out to make sense of this dark pessimist as a response to the troubles of the first globalised century.
Her book has prompted a rash of reviews, not the least of which is by the mordant critic of censorious liberalism and all beliefs in progress, John Gray. It is from John Gray’s review, “Homo Duplex,” that I have taken the epigram of this post. It is an epigram I could subscribe to myself.
I first encountered Conrad in reading a little grey-backed student’s guide to English literature, which had been handed down to me from my grandmother’s student days. It must have been published in the 1920s or 1930s if I remember rightly. In this textbook, Conrad appeared as a certain form of stylist – a plain style in contrast to the complex eloquence of Thomas Browne – and a novelist of the high seas.
I went on from this coy introduction to read much of Conrad – Lord Jim, The Secret Agent, Nostromo, and, of course, The Heart of Darkness. He evoked like few other writers the gloom and glower of the world, and the futility of all our grandiose enterprises.
Perhaps the passages that have had the longest, deepest impact on my reading and writing are the portraits of his narrator, Marlow. This wandering storyteller was separated from his society by both experience and vision. His tales are those of a dark prophet spurned in his own country. They are tales of the barbarism in all civilisations.
At the start of The Heart of Darkness, Conrad describes the floating steamer on the Thames, on which Marlow will tell his tale of the horror, the horror of the Belgian Congo. Conrad evokes the great historical voyages of English navigation and English piracy – “the Golden Hind returning with her round flanks full of treasure” – and exclaims: “What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth!… The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.”
Then he turns to the sun setting on the great metropole of London – “the monstrous town was still marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars.” It is then that Marlow speaks: “”And this also,’ said Marlow suddenly, ‘has been one of the dark places of the earth.'”
No-one really responds to Marlow. His words were accepted in silence, as expressive of the enigma that he was. He did not tell tales like the other sailors. and did not find in life the direct simplicity, the easy satisfactions and the disregard for secret knowledge of other men.
But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale that brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.” Conrad, Heart of Darkness, p. 8
This story seemed to lay down a way of being I would emulate in my own life, in my own writing. Marlow spoke of the mysterious and the strangeness we only see in darkness. He spoke as one sailor among others who yet pursued another course. He spoke as a man who made his way through the world, and yet was forever marked off by the cultures he connected to. They made him into a stranger in every world he passed through. Of Marlow, Conrad writes: “he had the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a lotus-flower.”
It would seem the most natural thing in the world then that Conrad would make an appearance in the strangely beautiful tales by W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, which have changed forever my sense of what it means to write. Conrad – “whose protracted bouts of despair were henceforth [after his trip to the Belgian Congo] to alternate with his writing” – would appear in Sebald’s Rings of Saturn as both a witness to the human destructiveness that haunts the narrator and the prelude to the tragic story of Roger Casement’s fatal opposition to the horrors of King Leopold’s monstrosity: it would lead to Casement’s brutal execution and the extirpation of his name.
Sebald, Conrad, Marlow, and if this does not seem an imposture, myself: our thoughts are connected by a deep pessimism, from which writing is the only escape. Action in the world is too marked by fatality; but writing allows us to say the things that our silent readers will ignore and accept as just like Marlow.
It is these thoughts too that John Gray speaks of in his undefinable political philosophy marked by scepticism towards all illusions of progress. If I maintain the tradition of Marlow, speaking my strange stories on a floating steamer as the sun sets on our monstrous world, then John Gray maintains the traditions of Conrad’s darkness. Let the final words of his review of Jasanoff’s biography close my post for today:
If Conrad sounds cynical to readers today, it is because he voices truths that are now deemed unmentionable. He did not believe in what Russell, in a 1937 essay, called the ‘superior virtue of the oppressed’. All human institutions, including newly independent states, were steeped in crime; barbarism and civilisation would always be intertwined, with old evils continually reappearing in new guises. It is a vision as disruptive to the censorious liberalism that holds the reins today as it was to imperial fantasies of progress a hundred years ago.
i still carry with me when Marlowe explains to the reader how he was fascinated by the dark spot of central Africa, as if that spot were a vacuum drawing him to it. That terrifies me for some reason, i think due to man being that way inclined, drawn to the treacherous, to taking unnecessary risks that put others in danger, The native who screams when he is pierced by a spear & Marlowe’s surprise due to his assumption that the negro was not able to feel pain. A powerful text is Heart of Darkness.
You can add me to this group of pessimists. i was once a believer in perfectibility, & though i can’t prove that it isn’t possible, it seems to me we are pretty much destined to live in a state of maximum potential, though most phenomena can be boiled down to binary positions, which pretty much still means there will be those who take advantage of weakness.
What are your thoughts on the ability of man, as a global culture, to become perfected? By which i mean, a society that is stable & in which everyone lives free, sheltered & has a full belly.
Perfectibility is a dangerous idea – it has been a motor for cruelty and destruction in pursuit of the ideal society, as much as the more modest aims that you identify. Perfectibility is a hard line among the many myths of progress, and I do not believe in them.
John Gray, the same reviewer of Conrad’s book, begins his The Silence of Animals: On progress and other myths, with another Conrad story, before going on to locate faith in the future as part of the Christian eschatological tradition. The myth of progress transforms the meaning of history “But from being a succession of cycles like the seasons, history came to be seen as a story of redemption and salvation., and in modern times salvation became identified with the increase of knowledge and power.”
So, I do not believe in perfectibility of the human animal: culture cannot eliminate, even if it can curb, the traits and instincts that we have.
Still, the aims of perfectibility as you define it – “free, sheltered and a full belly” – seem modest. To deny progress ought not mean denying all scope for concrete improvement in our lives. We may have more success achieving shelter and a full belly for all. Have we not seen billions of people over the last 30 years – with the growth of wealth of China and India and other developing countries – lifted out of poverty? But freedom for all and a stable society could be contradictory aims. Perhaps that contradiction explains the simultaneous conflicts in the rich liberal democracies around both identity politics and the populist backlash against elite driven, libertarian economic innovation?
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Some great information here. Seems so obvious that the myth of progress comes out of the Christian eschatological tradition. i’d never thought of it though.
i wish i had more to add, but you’ve answered my query, dare i say, perfectly.
Still, a lot for me to process here, i can sense some of this finding a nook in the new poems i am writing. So i must thank you for that.